For a second, the troll’s face hung slack and stupid. Einarr could see the moment when it realized she meant it: rage began to build like a squall on the ocean, until finally the storm broke. The creature roared: “What?”
Einarr and his companions flinched away from the thunderous noise. Not that he could blame the troll entirely. “Um, Runa, isn’t that why we came all this way?”
“I’m not going in there, Einarr. Not with it smelling like a half-rotted carcass someone tossed in an outhouse. Whatever this ‘bad-head’ is, the first step to curing it is cleaning their lair.”
“Poison light comes. Lair clean enough. Music lady fix bad-head.”
“I cannot treat anyone in a place that smells like that. I will not be able to breathe, let alone sing, and I may well vomit. I cannot ‘fix bad-head’ or anything else under those circumstances.”
She had a point, but Einarr doubted the troll could see that. Especially since it had minutes to get inside before the sun turned it to stone. He sighed and turned to the troll. “Look. She’s right, but I know you can’t be out much longer either. So why don’t…” Einarr glanced at Erik. He was going to hate this. “Why don’t we see what we can do to make your cave less smelly.”
Predictably, he got a long flat look from Erik. That didn’t sound like he intended to fight him about it, at any rate, and right now that was what he cared about. The faster Runa was able to fulfill her promise, the sooner they could get back on the water. Einarr already shuddered to think how many of their friends might have been claimed by the insanity of the black blood.
The troll looked at Einarr just as stupidly as he had looked at Runa’s refusal. It was dancing a little, anxious to be inside. “Music lady friends want help?”
Want was probably a strong word, but he went with it. “We do.”
“Good good. In come. Make good for music lady.” The troll darted under the cover of the cave roof then, and beckoned them to follow.
Einarr made it wait a little longer. “Runa. Hide yourself somewhere, will you? Climb a tree. If something happens… if we end up in the cookpot…”
She raised her chin haughtily. “What sort of a woman do you take me for? I will climb a tree, but if they turn on you I will have my vengeance on them.”
Jorir had caught up, he saw. Einarr opened his mouth to protest, but stopped himself. Good enough. “We’ll hurry.”
The sound of tearing cloth caught his attention. When he turned around, Jorir was offering him a square of fabric: the other two already had some tied to cover their noses. Gratefully, Einarr accepted the mask. “Let’s go,” he said once the knot was secure.
The troll’s lair was filthy, of course, but not in the manner of a beast’s filth. Beasts could be relied on not to shit in their own bed. Trolls, evidently, were more akin to the most worthless class of humanity, and could not. They had no more than stepped inside the cave when Einarr wished he’d told them to wait for evening, for under any other circumstance here would say this did not need cleaned, but rather burned.
By midday, however, the worst of the filth had been washed away, revealing a pair of mouldering straw mats and a fire pit near the entrance. On one of those straw mats slept a troll even uglier than the one who had led them here, and plainly the one suffering from “bad head.” Not that Einarr had any clearer idea what that meant now that Runa could stomach entering the cave to see to her patient.
Einarr frowned out at the meadow beyond the cave. That there was nothing he could do to help rankled, somehow, and keeping watch outside of a troll cave seemed singularly useless – even when one of the trolls in residence was rather thoroughly incapacitated.
Erik, for his part, had taken out a knife and begun carving a piece of wood he’d found outside the cave. He seemed strangely relaxed, given the circumstances.
“Never took you for a whittler,” Einarr said to break the silence.
Erik shrugged one shoulder and continued carving. “Times like these, gives me something to do besides worry. And let’s face it, we’ll need fish hooks when we get off this rock.”
Einarr snorted. “That we will. You don’t think this was a mistake?”
“What, coming here to help a troll? Nah. She may be spoiled rotten, but your Lady has a decent head on her shoulders, and she knows the Tales besides. Between her an’ you, we’ll get back to the Cap’n. I’m sure of it.”
Einarr didn’t answer right away, staring out across the field. It was quite picturesque under the midmorning sun, actually. It was hard to believe that a troll lived here at all, let alone that there was anything dangerous lurking in the grass. Finally he managed to get his voice to work again, even if he did still choke a little on the words. “Thank you, Erik.”
“You are your father’s son, lad. I told you this spring: not a man aboard the Vidofnir wouldn’t follow you to the gates of Hel itself.” Erik paused, and shot a sidelong look at him, and his mouth curled in wry humor. “Of course, that’s before they all hear about the raven feathers.”
Einarr rolled his eyes. “Quiet, you. You’d have done the same thing, in my shoes.”
“I’m pretty sure it would have been Irding if he’d seen them.” Erik chuckled now. “That’s what it is to be a young hothead.”
Erik’s mouth opened to say more, but then Runa’s voice carried forward from the back of the cave. “…- bad air. Make sure he gets out of the cave every night, even if you have to carry him yourself. Your brother should come back to his right mind over the next few days, so long as you do that and keep this place…” She hesitated, and disgust filled her voice when she settled on the word. “Clean. Cleaner than we found it this morning. Move the fire outside. Dig yourselves a pit away from the door. And if he starts trashing things, give him a little Frigg’s grass.”
The familiar troll’s voice made a noise of agreement.
“Good,” Jorir answered. “And now, we must go.”
Jorir and Runa emerged from the cave a moment later and took a deep breath of the comparatively fresh air.
Einarr straightened off of the wall where he leaned. “Ready, then?”
“More than,” the two answered together.
Jorir set out ahead. “Come on,” he said. “I know the way back to the ridge.”
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